Monday, September 3, 2007

New Issue Review: ZYZZYVA* vol. 23 no. 1

"For hours, off and on, he gave me kind of stares a child throws Christmas mornings, when he has torn the wrappings from every present and stands waiting for the gift that will never arrive."
-from the story "Exit Wounds" by Charles McLeod

"...For you she builds a body, a list
from hip to waist, a weight in breasts best set to anchor
the architecture of your mouth."
-from the poem "Husbandry" by Jennifer Borges Foster

For the past 150 years, American little and literary magazines have mainly existed to publish new and original writing yet unaccepted by mainstream publishing/reading venues, either because of the writing's form or content, or simply because the name of its author isn't well-known enough (such as the early Sherwood Anderson, Philip Roth, or Miranda July). It was due to just such editorial vision that Emerson and Fuller's ever-copied mid-nineteenth century magazine, The Dial, never amassed more than 300 subscribers. And hardly has anywhere suffered to publish unrecognized quality writing as thoroughly as did Margaret Anderson's The Little Review, its issues packed with experimental new work from Ezra Pound, Malcolm Cowley, T.S. Eliot, Vachel Lindsay, Djuana Barnes, William Carlos Williams, and Jean Cocteau, its famous slogan printed across the later covers: "Making No Compromise with the Public Taste." (Further proof of its publishing temerity: The Little Review was sued by the U.S. government after publishing 4 installments of Joyce's Ulysses; 3 of the 4 installments were burned by the Post Office.) Though West Coast literary magazine, ZYZZYVA, is very different from both The Dial and The Little Review, it is their cousin in its thankfully stubborn insistence to find and publish fascinating new writing by under-recognized, sometimes unheard of, literary authors and artists.

"The last word: West Coast writers and artists," say covers of ZYZZYVA, a literary journal published thrice-yearly out of San Francisco by a staff led by the magazine's founder, Howard Junker. In photos, Junker looks eerily like John Updike (as Junker himself has often pointed out), and one might wonder if some higher power didn't create a renegade literary twin of Updike for the western seaboard, in a zen-like balancing of American letters. Such a thing, in metaphor, at least, is necessary. Though the United States is 3,000 miles wide, the wealth of good writing is considered to be found almost wholly in New York, because the largess of good publishing is found there. One need only look around (which, understandably, takes time and effort) at such literary destinations as City Lights Books, Powell's bookstore, Tin House, McSweeney's, Black Clock, and Zoetrope (just to name a few of the more prominent ones) to see that the western edge of the nation is publishing and selling a considerable amount of the most exciting writing around.

All this to say that the latest issue of ZYZZYVA is a good a place as any to read outstanding new writing--the kind of writing that will, as Francine Prose once described a good story, feel as though the top of your head has just been removed for a moment. That "ah-hah" feeling. The feeling a reader might get from Charles McLeod's haunting short story, "Exit Wounds," from this issue of ZYZZYVA. "When the buzzing rose up and reached me," the narrator of the story tells us upon seeing thousands of bees rise up from an overturned semi-trailer, "I was saddened; they had named themselves and we had to act accordingly. All around us were cornfields and farther off farmhouses, their porch lights like code on the flatland. The insects pushed on and I kept walking west. The sky was so wide it was startling."

Like McLeod's story, much of the writing published in this and most issues of ZYZZYVA is somehow distinctly western, infused as it is with references to western landscapes, or tinged with aestheticisms reminiscent of the Beats, but mixed with modern doses of cynicism and post-Marquez wonder. Though somehow the magazine on the whole retains a non-regional feel, as though the writers could be from some pueblo in southern Mexico or writing at some coffee shop in Kansas City. While only publishing work by West Coast artists, Junker's ability to publish writing that resonates with all readers speaks highly of his editorial eye. The pieces in this latest issue of ZYZZYVA are as diverse as they come, ranging from Native American memoir (Sarris, "All this Family") to humorous fantasy (Houser, "Piranha-Otter") to the slippery ontology of sexual experience (Howard, "Bolero") to celebrity photography (Fernandez, "Self Portrait with Charles Bukowski") to mixed media art (Mulvey, "Virtual Couch") to a different type of graphic novel (Madonna, "All Over Coffee"). In the diversity of these pieces, Junker continues to map the literature of the West, expanding its borders. That this issue of ZYZZYVA deserves readers is not the question--Madonna's graphic novel and McLeod's story alone are reason enough to drop the 11 dollars for an issue. Instead, the question this and the best issues of ZYZZYVA brings to mind (along with the best issues of McSweeney's and Zoetrope) is to what the future holds for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle as bright new cities in the literary geography. New York will not soon fade as the center of literary publishing. But with people like Junker, Ferlinghetti, Winthrop McCormack, and others continually finding a home for writing to equal that coming out of New York, it seems like the landscape is certainly flattening, if not yet shifting.

*Our sincere apologies to everyone at ZYZZYVA for our previous miscapitalization (as Zyzzyva) of the name of their fine mag.

**This review regards the spring issue of ZYZZYVA, while a newer issue has already been released, vol.23 no. 2.

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